CW: Abuse, Domestic Violence, Mental Health Issues
As an industry I think we have taken major strides in recent years to deal with issues of abuse and violence that permeate the world of body piercing. We have had our own me too movement, with dozens of brave people speaking out about abuse and violence within the industry. Jewelry companies have taken stands to remove abusers and instate codes of conduct, and the APP has created new resources online for reporting abuse. And as an industry we have rallied to support those who do come forward. All of these are important changes. But the work seems to have stalled there. And what has happened is we have done a lot of the work that looks very good on paper when it comes to helping with abuse. But we have not done much of the often difficult, often messy work to actually support victims and survivors of abuse within the industry. In fact, we’ve largely left many of them without any support or resources at all, and further traumatized them in different ways.
I have been very open about my own story of abuse in this industry. I dealt with years of working 12 hour days, 7 days a week, unpaid- the tip of the iceberg of 5 years of financial abuse. Living and working for an alcoholic, who regularly became aggressive and violent when drunk. Graphic threats of bodily harm to me and harm to others, long nights of punching walls and throwing things. Multiple failed attempts to leave the studio, one of which culminated in a stabbing. When I did leave I was terrified to come forward. I was struggling with CPTSD, in a state of financial insecurity, unsure of where I would work and where I would live. Leaving had enraged my abuser, who began a series of attacks on my career as well as threats on my life. But I did eventually come forward and tell my story, as did others who survived my abuser. And the outpouring of support I received when I came forward was amazing. Hundreds of comments on Facebook, messages, words of love and hope. But there was where it stopped. Some people I consider friends and family were there for me past that. But the community at large left their comments, their words of support. And that was the end of it.
I had thought, foolishly, that the hard part was over. I had left that situation. I would find a new studio, find a new place to live. I would figure out the debt I had been left with. But that was not the end. In fact, leaving was just the beginning. After leaving came healing.
I struggled immensely with CPTSD. Trauma had left me broken, and was seeping into every corner of my life. Adjusting to a new studio was incredibly difficult. I struggled with asking my bosses and coworkers for help and feedback, years of emotional abuse in the workplace had drilled trauma and fear deep into me. Clients asking me about my old boss were triggering, and I often found myself white knuckling through shifts and flashbacks, struggling to keep it together and keep a smile on my face for my clients. Outside of work, my eating disorder surged and I struggled with binging and purging. I was filled with a mess of tangled, complicated emotions. Like many, mental health coverage was not accessible to me (although this eventually changed over time at my last studio), and I struggled under the weight of my debt to access care I needed to continue healing.
In this tangle of emotions I found a well of anger. Anger at what had been done to me, anger at the ways the industry had allowed and even encouraged situations of abuse like mine. Anger at past failures of leadership within the industry to adequately address abuse, and even efforts made to hide my abuse and protect my abusers. I lashed out- this anger came out in mean, hurtful comments online, aggressive emails to organizations, and general screaming into the void. I wanted someone to be accountable for what I had experienced, and I took it out on those around me in the industry. I knew there were flaws in this industry that needed fixing, and I had so much emotion and energy I tried to throw toward fixing it, mostly because I couldn’t access resources to fix myself.
What I needed was support. I needed community. I needed mutual aid. Access to mental health resources. Help with financial planning and getting out of debt. Stable housing and access to work. Time to heal from triggers that were intimately intertwined with my workplace. I needed more than comments of support on Facebook. But there is where the majority of this industry, this community, stopped helping me.
1 in 4 women and 1 in 7 men will experience domestic violence and abuse in their life time. For trans and gender nonconforming folks, this jumps to 54%. The piercing industry and the format of apprenticeships for the last 20 years have created a unique environment where abuse can be easily hidden, and victims can be easily cut off from family and friends. It takes an average of 7 attempts to leave a situation of domestic violence, and women are 70% more likely to be killed in the first 2 weeks after leaving.
But leaving is not where this ends.
50% of requests for survivors that can not be met are for housing and shelter. 38% of all victims of domestic violence will be homeless in their lives. More than 80% of survivors report their abuser disrupted their ability to work. For black survivors, they are disproportionately likely to be criminalized by the legal system if they seek help. For LGBTQ survivors 12.2% of abusers used homophobic and anti-LGBTQ oppression as a method of power and control over partners.
The likelihood of PTSD and CPTSD increases after a domestic abuse event. 81% of women will experience long-term psychological effects such as PTSD.
As an industry, we are very quick to leave comments of praise and support for survivors when they come forward. We unfriend their abusers, stop sending clients to them, and try to warn others to stay safe. And I in no way want to minimize that, nor am I suggesting we stop doing that work- it’s important too. But those things are only the first step. We can not stop at Facebook comments and unfriending people if we truly want to make progress about abuse in this industry. If we want to help survivors and victims, we need to actually help them.
We often focus only on getting victims to leave situations of abuse. Quit that studio. Break up with that person. Leave that apprenticeship. But what next? Where do these people go? How do they afford to leave? How do we treat them once they have left? Often, victims of abuse are expected to simply shake it off and get back to “normal.” They have no other choice- they need to work to afford to live and to leave these situations.
I struggled deeply in the years following my abuse, and I realized the compassion the industry afforded me upon leaving did not extend past that. At one of my first guest spots and interviews after leaving I privately confided in the manager that I had left a situation of abuse and that my old boss couldn’t be contacted for a reference. I explained the abuse, and was give so many words of compassion and kindness. During this guest spot my abuser was harassing me, and there were a few moments I took a break between appointments to cry and compose myself. I will be the first to admit I was’t 100% on this guest spot- how could I have been? I had just left a situation of severe abuse, my life was actively being threatened, and I had no time to take a break, rest, or heal. I was homeless, and in excessive debt. I needed to work and guest and try to find somewhere to live.
The manager, at the end of the guest spot, ghosted me, and then told me they were incredibly disappointed in having me out. I was overemotional crying on my breaks, I was dramatic for talking about my abuse, I asked “stupid” questions and I very clearly wasn’t the piercer I made myself out to be. On one hand, they weren’t wrong- I was very emotional, and I didn’t perform at 100% the entire time I was there. Dealing with emotional trauma and personal issues isn’t an excuse for doing work that is less than ideal, and that is my responsibility. I absolutely was not my best self on that guest spot and I need to own that. But when we as an industry force victims and survivors to work, and work at the highest of levels, days after leaving situations of violence (and often during the single most deadly timeframe for victims) what work do we expect? How do we expect these people to perform?
“I’m scared to even talk about this if I’m being honest. But when I left my studio I was able to start at an APP studio in the area. They knew about it ((the abuse)), and were super nice. I did struggle with drinking after I left. I’m not proud of who I was then. I was never drunk at work, but I was hungover, and I wasn’t a great coworker, it wasn’t a good time in my life. I still had to see clients who saw him, and talk about him all the time at work. It was just so hard….it’s like the abuse wasn’t really over yet.
Being in an APP studio was my dream, and I ruined it. I got yelled at for being late and hungover. Written up for things. I’ll admit I deserved it. I got fired after a while- I left the industry for a little bit to get help. I’m at a good studio now, but I’m still scared. They ((the old studio)) tell everyone I’m an alcoholic and can’t be trusted. I probably deserve that. But it’s like I never got a chance.
((At the APP studio)) I was working 5 days a week, and sometimes 6 between different locations. I was also given more responsibility then I had at the old studio- I had to come in early and do a lot of inventory most days. I was sleeping on a friends couch during this time. No, they didn’t offer health insurance or mental health care. My current studio doesn’t either.” -Anonymous
When I decided to write this piece, I wanted to see if my experience was an isolated one or not. I reached out to friends, colleagues, and others I knew had experienced abuse in the industry. And most had experiences similar to my own. They had been in situations of abuse or violence, situations often enabled or encouraged by social norms and structures within the industry. When they finally were able to leave, there was an outpouring of support online especially on social media. But with the exception of a few friends or a few colleagues, that was where that support ended. There were no real resources for people who were leaving these situations, and for the most part we as an industry leave these survivors to navigate leaving and restarting their life alone, apart from some Facebook care reacts. Beyond that, there was a lack of compassion for survivors who now faces a difficult transition into a new chapter in life, and a long journey of healing. Many people I spoke to didn’t even want to be quoted anonymously in this article for fear of retaliation not from their abuser but from bosses, coworkers, colleagues, and the industry at large.
As an industry we encourage people to leave situations of abuse and often times these situations are intrinsically interlinked with survivors jobs and income. Because this abuse often includes financial abuse, survivors very rarely have substantial savings with which to leave, and therefore need to jump into working elsewhere immediately in order to survive. This can lead to people having to rush to find new employment, often at the detriment of the survivor who must take the closest/quickest job offer rather than take time to find one that is best for them. Let alone take time to heal and recover from situations of abuse and violence before jumping right back into work. When survivors do return to work, the studio is often the place where abuse occurred for them, and many different things in the workplace can be triggering. Because this abuse often comes with emotional abuse in the workplace, survivors may struggle with studio communication and interactions with coworkers and management. If a survivor still works in a region close to their abuser, they may have to deal with clients asking them about their abuser or coming in with stories from them, which can be deeply retraumatizing. And many survivors will struggle with mental health issues as they heal from their abuse. Very few studios offer even basic health care plans, let alone plans that cover quality, accessible mental health care. Survivors often can not access any mental health services, let alone quality ones. This can lead survivors to struggle with mental illness, addiction, and self destructive behavior. Erratic behavior, difficulties communicating, issues in the workplace, and even toxic behavior can all happen during the journey of healing. We often hold little compassion for the mess that trauma recovery can be. In fact, we punish and shame these behaviors and call victims failures and weak for not handing their trauma well.
I want to make it clear that I don’t think surviving situations of abuse gives people a free pass to be awful or hurt others. It doesn’t mean people get to be bad piercers, bad employees, or bad friends. I started this blog post discussing my own messy healing process because I wanted to be honest about what that looked like. I was not my best in the years following leaving my abuser. I hurt a lot of people in this industry, people who do genuinely work very hard for the same goals I had in mind. I have to take responsibility for the harm I caused, and I’ve damaged some personal and professional relationships I will likely not be able to fix. And I am not owed their forgiveness because I am a survivor. All I can do is be accountable to the harm I caused, and work on my own path of healing and growth to become someone who no longer causes that harm. But I must be honest, if I had more of the support and access to resources I needed when I left my abuser, my healing process would have looked different, and probably far healthier. I was doing the best I could at the time with the resources I had access to. Now, my best looks better. And I want to help others access better resources so their best can look better too.
So, how can we as an industry do the work? How can we actually support survivors of abuse and violence in this industry and allow them to leave their abusers and successfully work on healing from abuse?
Make Time for Them
One of the best ways we can help survivors is to hold space and be someone they can talk to. Offering to be someone that people can talk to, vent to, and just get support from is huge. Make sure if you extend this offer that you actually have the time to follow through. If someone does end up opening up to you it could be a difficult, lengthy interaction. You don’t want to cut someone short because you have something else to do or don’t actually have the emotional energy to support them.
If they do open up, listen without judgment. Don’t force anyone to open up about something they don’t feel comfortable talking about. Let the person share with you what they are comfortable with and support them in that. You don’t need to offer advice, suggestions, or solutions unless the person actively requests that. Often active listening is the best thing you can provide.
“Learn the Warning Signs
Many people try to cover up the abuse for a variety of reasons, and learning the warning signs of domestic abuse can help you help them
Red or purple marks on the neck
Bruises on the arms
Overly apologetic or meek
Changes in sleeping or eating patterns
Anxious or on edge
Loss of interest in once enjoyed activities and hobbies
Talking about suicide
Becoming withdrawn or distant
Canceling appointments or meetings at the last minute
Being late often
Excessive privacy concerning their personal life
Isolating themselves from friends and family”
Because domestic violence is more about control then anger often the victim is the only one who sees the dark side of the perpetrator. Many times, others are shocked to learn that a person they know could commit violence. Consequently, victims often feel that no one would believe them if they told people about the violence. Believe the victim's story and say so. For a victim, finally having someone who knows the truth about their struggles can bring a sense of hope and relief.
Offer the victim these assurances:
I believe you
This is not your fault
You don't deserve this
Know What Resources are Available in Your Community
Situations of abuse and violence can happen anywhere, even in your own backyard. You can do the most within your community and help survivors local to you. You don’t have to fix things for a survivor, but you can put them in contact with others who may be able to. Familiarize yourself with local charities and groups. Find out what your local domestic violence shelters are, and network with local victim advocates. Talk with people in your community and find out which resources are good and safe- not all advocates or organizations are safe or well intentioned. It’s also great to have resources from local groups in your studio for clients who may need help- flyers, brochures, and information can be kept in your studio bathroom or lobby to give your community access to resources as well. A few to start with are
-National Domestic Violence Hotline, 24/7- 800-799-7233 thehotline.org
-RAINN- 1-800-656-4673 www.rainn.org
Build Community- Not Competition
Often times survivors are unable to take time to heal after leaving situations of abuse- they need to get back to work to afford leaving. One of the most direct forms of aid we can offer is to host or hire folks in this situation. If someone local or semi-local to you just left a situation of violence, consider offering them a guest spot or a few shifts at your studio. Even just allowing them to see clients there for emergencies or for specific appointments can be huge. If you have space for another employee, even part time, consider offering that to someone currently leaving a situation like this. And if someone is perhaps not ready to be piercing in your studio, consider offering for them to come and shadow and learn. You could teach them basic skills over a few days that could be the key to them landing a better job at a safe studio. Being in a community means offering community support and mutual aid. These people are your community- not your competition. It goes a long way to treat them as such.
Offer Health Insurance at Your Studio
This is one of the most direct and effective forms of action we can take. Making health care and mental health services accessible to our industry is crucial for a range of reasons, not least of all creating an environment where survivors can heal and thrive. Many survivors can not access any health care they need, mental or physical, without insurance. The more studios take care of their employees mental and physical health, the more we can help our community heal and grow. Even if you are unable to offer a full insurance plan at this time, consider offering a monthly reimbursement on necessary care services like seeing a physician, getting on birth control, or seeing a therapist. Even offering to reimburse 100-300$ of therapy or care every month can be the difference between a survivor being able to access care at all.
Give Survivors Compassion
While being a victim of abuse does not give you a pass to hurt others, it does explain why you may be struggling in the weeks, months, and years after leaving this kind of situation. If you are considering hiring or hosting someone who is recently out of a situation like this, please do so with a little extra compassion in your heart. Understand that this person is going through an exceedingly difficult time, and in all honesty working is probably not what is ideal for them right not. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and offer survivors some time to adjust to this new situation. Consider asking them up front if there is anything extra they might need, such as more scheduled breaks, help affording food or accommodations, or extra time with clients. They may need shorter shifts to start, tasks that aren’t client facing on bad days, or a safe space to calm down in if triggered at work. If they do make mistakes or or handle themselves poorly, be firm but kind in your corrections or discussions.
If you are hiring someone who has recently left a situation of abuse, understand that they can not succeed if you don’t give them the tools too. No access to safe housing, financial stability, health care and mental health, on top of adjusting to a new studio, new clients, new policies, and potentially having to learn or relearn certain skills is not setting someone up for success. Mutual aid can look like hiring someone who is in need of a better situation and affording them the grace and compassion to allow them to heal and begin to thrive again.
Mutual aid within our community can take many different forms. Financial aid like directly donating to survivors, go fund me’s, and raffles are all amazing ways to support survivors. If you can afford to help someone finically it is always amazing to do so. So is welcoming them into your studio. But not everyone has the money or the space to do these things. There are other ways we can help however. Consider donating a small amount as a gift card for a local grocery store or gas station to help someone get food or be able to get around. If someone is local to you who has recently left a situation of abuse, consider offering to help them clean around their house, help with child care, or come with them to run errands. Bring them by a home cooked meal. Consider offering to help them with rides to and from interviews, guest spots, or the airport. If you want to assist someone not local, you could offer to help them design a logo, put together a portfolio, or make a resume to apply for new jobs. Offer your time and knowledge to assist them with photography, social media, piercing technique, or other resources that may help them land on their feet. We can use whatever skills or strengths we have to benefit those within our community who are currently in need of extra support.
This community is filled with passionate, motivated people who I know want to be able to help each other and help make our industry safer. However it can be hard to know what to do and how to direct our energy and efforts. Consider working with local piercers in your state to create a network of safe people and resources. Join learning forums online where you can spread education and learn how to best use your time. Connect with local resources for abuse and violence in your community, as well as local BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and minority groups and charities that can help you learn how to best use your time, money, and efforts to support those in your area. Consider volunteering with the APP. Our efforts start with offering support online and removing abusers from our digital spaces. But our efforts don’t end there- there is so much more we can do.
In order to truly do the work of impacting and changing our communities and being able to assist victims and survivors well, it takes having a strong understanding of a lot of the intersectionalities that impact abuse and violence. Learning about white supremacy, racism, sexism, homophobia, economics, political movements, and psychology all inform our ability to assist our peers well. Taking the time to get this kind of education is also often overlooked in these movements and efforts to do and be better. But like anything else, the education creates a foundation for us to be able to do better. Here are some suggestions to get you started, but there’s a lot out there.
What My Bones Know: A Memoir of Healing from Complex Trauma
What Happened to you? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing- Dr. Bruce D Perry and Oprah Winfrey
White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism, Paula S Rothenberg
Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor- Layla Saad
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches- Audre Lorde
As an industry we have already taken strides in recent years to create a safer, healthier community. But it is time for us to take these efforts offline and into our lives and our communities. It is time for us to learn how to use our energy and our efforts more effectively to be able to help heal and grow each other and our industry. We owe it, to ourselves, to this community, and to survivors and victims alike to do and be better for the next generation.
I would not be able to write this blog today without the immense support from some colleagues I have received. A special thank you to Luis, Ed, and Mike, without whom I would not have been able to leave my own situation of abuse and speak out. And to the entire team at Icon, who were there for me when I could not be there for myself. Without their grace, compassion, and forgiveness, I would never have been able to make it this far on my journey of healing, and I will always be grateful everyone there for seeing my potential and holding space for me as I realized it on my own. I am healing now, and it is because of all of you. And most of all to Margo, who has always been here for me through everything. We are doing it. Together.
DV Facts and Statistics-